An objective study of the Qanoon instrument
(flat-zither type instrument)

  The multitude of civilizations that the Arab world has witnessed greatly affected its music and diversified its rhythmical infrastructure & instruments. The Qanoon is at the forefront of the rich heritage of Arabic instruments.

  Thus, the flat zither is considered to be a primary instrument both in the Oriental Takht (musical ensemble) and in solo playing. Further, it’s one of the most intricate musical instruments that emanates distinguished & diverse notes consisting of around three and a half octave covering the majority of Arabic maqam. That is why the flat zither is regarded as a requisite to other Arabic musical instruments and the center point of the orchestra, When played in an orchestra or ensemble it sweeps up all the other instruments and leads them on. Similarly like a piano which is considered as an indispensable instrument in any orchestra

  The Qanoon is a trapezoidal string instrument, in which the performer plucks the strings with short horn-plectra placed between the tip of each index finger and a small metal ring.

History & Origin of Qanoon

If we were to trace the history of the Qanoon through different eras, we will find that this instrument is a descendant of the string instrument family that has evolved over time. There are different views as to the exact origin of this instrument similarly it is also worth noting that Arabic musicologist and reference books lack concrete & accurate information due to the following: firstly: insufficient resources dedicated to the study of the Qanoon, secondly: failure to adopt ancient manuscripts, and last but not least, failure to rely on historic musical relics, despite the fact that they are the primary resource for history of music.  
In his books “Musical instruments in Islamic Eras”, “History of Arabic music”, and “Complementary instruments to the Iraqi Maqam” Dr Rashid states that the Qanoon is originally an Assyrian string instrument – particularly from the 19th century BC. This box carved from an elephant’s ivory was found in the Assyrian capital Nimrud also known as Kaleh which is approximately 35 KM away from Musol city. The strings are stretched over a single bridge poised one end, and attached to tuning pegs at the other end.

The Abbasids referred to this rectangular string instrument as “Nuzha” which resembles the Assyrian instrument. In an undefined span of time, this instrument later on took the form of the current Qanoon.

Transition of the Qanoon

In his last book, “History of Arabic Music”, Dr. Rashid mentions the Qanoon as being the last of the musical instruments that the Europeans have adapted from the Orient during the Middle Ages, 1100 AD and continued being played until its importance slowly began to fade and was replaced by the piano around 1700 AD Further, the Qanoon was also adopted in India, the former USSR and Asia.


With reference to the naming, Dr. Subhi stated in both “History of Arabic Music” & “Complementary instruments to the Iraqi Maqam” the Greek word Kanon (κανών) is different from the Qanoon as a musical instrument, rather, the former refers to a one stringed instrument known as monochord which is used to illustrate the mathematical properties of musical pitches. In fact, there is no proof that the flat zither was ever used during the Roman & Greek eras. Hence, the name “Qanoon” was used during the Abbasid Era, specifically in the famous folk tale “One thousand and one nights”.

 The flat zither is normally made from sycamore wood, the back, of pine wood, and the bridge is made of maple. The design on the sides and top is cut out of rosewood and white pine, forming this trapezoidal shape. The manufacturer of this instrument takes specific attention to the dimensions and the type of wood in use. Egypt is primarily known for making the best Qanoons, and after it comes Syria. The Qanoon is made up of 78 strings, 26 courses of strings, with three strings per course.The strings are tuned to the basic notes of a given scale. The pitch of each course is lowered or raised by a whole step, half step, or quarter step by lowering or raising fixed metal levers that stop the strings at specific distances.

 Tuning of the Qanoon by the plectra starts with the middle octave the “Husseini” followed by the “dukah” Re, then the “Nawa Pentachord” stabilizing the “Rast” Do which is the fifth from the bottom of the “Nawa” lastly by the Jiharkah (Fa) which is the fourth string on the top of the “Rast” and finally the remaining strings are fine tuned in harmony with the middle octave.

Rast, Dukah, Sikah, Jiharkah, Nawa, Husseini, Awj, Kirdan all of these names of set of tones of the Arabic scale which mainly belong to the “Rast Maqam” that is

Do - Re - Mi - Fa - Sol – La – Si – Do.

 Dr. Rashid maintains that the origin of these terminologies originated from the Mongolian Empire (1258 – 1337) right after the cessation of the Abbasid Era. These Persian names were mentioned in Kutbeldine Al Shiraz’s book born 1236 in Shiraz/Iran and died in 1310 in Tabriz.

 Parts of the Qanoon:

The Academy of Arabic language in Egypt has formed a list of terminologies for the Qanoon parts. In 1964, Dr. Hussein Ali Mahfouz republished those terminologies in his book “Encyclopedia of Arabic Music”, and in 1977 he republished them once again in “Dictionary of Arabic Music” pp. 353-356)) 



First: The Wooden Box
1.    Sound board
2.    Main head
3.    Heels
4.    Peglock / Pegbox
5.    Sound Holes
6.    Fret Board
7.    Clefts

  Second: Components
1.    Pegs
2.    Bridge / Ponticello
3.    Base
4.    Strings

5.    Levers
6.   Thimbles/tortoise shell picks

7.    Plectrum

The Sound Board

This trapezoidal sycamore wood is constructed by skilled craftsmen with an average length of  (75 - 100 cm) at its long side 13.5 inches (29.7cm) at the short side, and a width at (36.3cm) gradually tapering to (8.8 cm) at the narrow end. The instrument also has special latches for each course, called mandals. The Turkish and Egyptian Qanoon’s differ in size.




Upper Sound board

It is the lower surface that is placed on the performer’s lap.
100 cm – Arabic Qanoon
75 cm – Turkish Qanoon





Lower Sound Board

The horizontal board which is restrained between the heels & pegs.
30 cm – Arabic Qanoon
20 cm – Turkish Qanoon




The connector between the upper & lower sound board. Containing about 3.5 octaves.
44 cm – Arabic Qanoon
33 cm – Turkish Qanoon



 These small levers can be raised or lowered in order to adjust the pitches.




Tuning Levers

Made of an alloy of iron, 5 levers for each string. The performer raises it with his left hand while playing in order to adjust the pitches.




Main Head

This is where all the strings are attached to.


Peglock / Pegbox

A piece of wood that looks like a ruler and is fixed to the sound board containing 3 octaves around 63-84 holes.
W: 8 – 10cm
D: 1.5 cm



Wooden tuning pegs that are used to change the tension on a string and hence to set its pitch. The top edges of the pegs resemble truncated pyramids, and are turned by the cleft.



Cleft / Tuning Key

A metal key used to position the pegs and control the pitches.



Fret board 

Segments of fish skin covering small square spaces on the wood top which give the instrument its haunting, hollow resonance and surprising volume.



The bridge is fixed in place by the tension of the strings passing over it. It can also be re-positioned according to the tuning requirements.



A small wooden piece made of wood, and acts as the connector between the bridge  &  sound board.




Sound Holes

Ornamented holes distributed over the surface which gives emphasis to the sounds coming out of the instruments


Thimbles / Tortoise shell picks

An adjustable metal ring worn in the index finger used in conjunction with the plectrum for plucking the strings.




The performer holds the KANUN horizontally on the lap, and then plucks all three strings for each note simultaneously using plectra one fastened to each index finger by an adjustable metal ring / shell picks.

Care Instructions: insert the plectrum in a cup full of olive oil after each performance.



There are an average of 26 different notes (possibly up to 30 notes), and for each note there are two or three (mostly three) strings for a total of 78 strings. The total range is up to 3.5 octaves. The strings can be lengthened or shortened by raising or lowering the small latches placed under the strings. In this way, the instrument can produce gaps smaller than a semitone during play. The reason why the instrument has a trapezoid form is to be able to insert the strings correctly from short to long, and to produce different sounds from high to low. Every string that comes out of the straight angled section and runs over the bridge is covered by an accord peg, passing through a special cleft running the length of the edge.

There are three types of strings in terms of their coarseness which is commonly known to musicians as:

¨ Dukah – for the dense strings,

¨ Nawa – medium strings

¨ Kurdan  - fine strings

The central of octave notes made of 78 strings that form the 26 maqam are as such:

¨ 4th note Dukah – dense string (treble)

¨ 2nd note Dukah – fine string (single)

¨ 4th note Nawa – dense  string (treble)

¨ 3rd note Nawa – fine string (single)

¨ 5th note Kurdan – dense string (treble)

¨ 5th note Kurdan – medium string (double)

¨ 3rd note Kurdan – fine string (single).

 Table of 26 Maqams:



Tuning the Qanoon

Strings are modulated in equal temperament according to the (Diwan / Octave) fundamental scale from which the Rast Maqam E is composed. Tunings begins from the Husseini Note which is central of octave notes that is the 10th note in the main head at a frequency of 440 Hz/sec. Performers modulate from one maqam to the other keeping the central note as their base.

1)   Husseini is on tone “La”

2)   Dukah fifth tone after Husseini

3)   Nawa fourth tone above Dukah

4)   Rast fifth tone after Nawa

5)   Jiarkah fourth tone above Rast

I. Plucking

1.    Both hands should be slightly convex.

Right hand should be higher than the left hand by an octave

Right index plays a melody following it by the left index to continue the tone

2.    Plucking by using a tremolo technique (rapid back & forth)

a.    Plucking one note at a time in arpeggio pattern

b.    Plucking with index fingers producing upper or lower scales

c.    Plucking while holding down the right index and moving the left index back and forth.

d.    Plucking with both indices and a middle finger

e.    Plucking with more than three fingers

II. Modulating

1.    Using the left thumb’s nail tips and the middle which is used for muting the sound.

2.    Using the levers, which can be raised or lowered quickly by the performer.

3.    Using a Glissando technique by sliding the left index finger nail.

III. Rhythmic plucking

1.    Main tune using the right index and plucking by the left index.

2.    Holding down by the left hand, thumb and index finger.

3.    Pulling the string towards the performer by using the left middle finger and thumb or pulling more than one string.

IV. Harmonic Plucking:

1.    using both index fingers

2.    alternating between the right and left index

3.    Playing in opposite directions.

V. Inverted Plucking

1.    Using the plectrum from top to bottom

2.    Connecting the sound using the Legato technique

Before the invention of Levers

The fret board was primarily plucked by using the fingers, prior to producing the metal levers. Of the most important Qanoonists was Mohamad Al Aqad, an Egyptian who manipulated the board by using his all of his fingers to get the desired note. This requires extraordinary skillfulness and a sharp musical ear in which playing is done by using the left hand’s thumb laying flat. This method is rarely, if any used now a days. Today, transposing of levers is by using the left hand to attain new melodies that is why the left hand is as important as the right hand. In fact, even is the majority of people are innately right handed, when using the Qanoon both hands should have equal strength and input.


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